MoMA’s Sex Change

Photo: Frederick Charles/Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art. Installation of Piplotti Rist's "Pour Your Body Out" Courtesy of the Artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, and Hauser & Wirth, Zurich, London

The deliciously named Swiss miss Pipilotti Rist, who for two decades has been ravishing viewers with her fiesta-colored video visions, has risen to new heights of trippy bliss. Her opulently beautiful 25-by-200-foot wraparound video at MoMA—complete with two round breast-shaped projector pods protruding from the walls and close-ups of pink tulips, a black pig, and a fleshy nude—is catnip for the eye and a hormonal rush for an institution badly in need of one. It is one of the most seductively rebellious artistic gestures since Lynda Benglis’s notorious Artforum ad in 1974, for which she posed naked wielding a dildo. Benglis’s action slapped a biased art world awake; Rist’s Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters) suspends us in a primordial sea of liquids, and performs a metaphysical sex change on the Museum of Modern Art. The atrium of this bastion of masculinism becomes a womb, and the museum itself a woman. In an abstract way, Rist makes the institution ovulate.

Rist’s installation is an impregnation and an incantation. It is also an exorcism. As I’ve said in these pages before, MoMA is—even with this show and the current Marlene Dumas survey—a place where very little work by women is on view, at least in the permanent collection. Rist’s installation comments on and reacts to this misogyny. She has hung magenta-colored draperies almost to the ceiling of the atrium, making it a ballroom, a Hopper movie theater, a bordello, or a living room. Her monolithic projected images caress and dissolve the hard-edged architecture. Drowsy droning music plays; bells ting-a-ling. The atrium has been carpeted, and a large circular couch with a hole in the middle has replaced Barnett Newman’s phallic Broken Obelisk. Shoes and coats are everywhere. People lie around, lean on walls, sleep, and sprawl in groups on the floor and couch. On one of my visits, the well-known painter Gary Stephan drifted by and said, “I wish I had some ganja.” This is museum as hallucination, opium den, Lotus Land, cubbyhole, and pleasure dome. Call it Trance Central station.

The images in Rist’s sixteen-minute video loop remix the colors of Fauvism, the fragmented form of Cubism, and modernism’s juicy jarring nudes. Rist’s quasi-narrative is pleasure, politics, and biology. In an interview she talks to curator Klaus Biesenbach about “our deepest craving to be synchronized with others” and “our love for fluids and water.” To some, Rist’s MoMA installation is little more than a hippy-dippy decorative circus. That’s a mistake, ignoring how clever and subversive Rist is. One subplot of her MoMA installation is to metaphysically induce a rush of psychic estrogen in the museum. By the film’s end the atrium is awash in a tidal sea of crimson and burgundy fluid.

At various points, a pig gnaws an apple, toes squish fruit, giant strawberries drift in clear liquid, a naked girl crawls in the grass. All hips, hair, and breasts, she caresses two earthworms as if removing the sin from Eve’s apple or stroking living phalluses. She fills another person’s mouth and nostrils with flower petals, eats tulips, digs into the dirt with her fingers. She is some sort of otherworldly Earth mother performing a modern-day fertility rite. MoMA seems to swell and stir to new life. A giant eye opens, a naked woman floats upside down, a trail of blood begins running up her breasts. Finally, a colossal female in a white bathing suit rises from the water. Between her legs is a flow of blood. The whole atrium goes red. MoMA comes of age.

What Richard Serra is to hard and dry, Rist is to soft and moist. Rather than only privileging the eye, as in Courbet’s yummy yoni shot The Origin of the World, Rist’s art is a full-body experience. Like Matthew Barney, who crawls like a symbiotic organism through space, or Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely’s giant reclining nude that was entered between the legs, Rist wants to turn the museum into an ecstasy machine.

In the West, however, ecstasy comes with proscriptions. Especially if it’s too female—then it’s taboo. A widely circulated rumor has it that MoMA asked Rist to edit out the red between the legs. It turns out that so-called “belly-magic” is more off-limits than mind-magic. In classical terms, the Dionysian is still more fraught than the Apollonian. Thinking about this installation without the blood is like thinking about life without blood.

Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters)
Pipilotti Rist.
MoMA. Through February 2.

MoMA’s Sex Change